Coca: A Blessing and a Curse

South Americans have cultivated coca plants for about 8,000 years. Valuing the leaves as highly as gold, the Inca treasured coca not only for its myriad medicinal properties, but also for the integral part it played in their sacred rites and rituals.

A legend from the Andes tells the tale of Kuka, a woman of such extraor dinary beauty that none in the entire empire could resist her. Aware of her power, Kuka used her charms to take advantage of men until word of her misdeeds reached the Great Inca’s ears. He ordered that she be sacrificed, cut in half, and buried. From her grave a miraculous plant sprouted. It gave strength and vigor and alleviated pain and suffering. The people called it coca, in honor of that beautiful and irresistible woman.

This myth acknowledges the great importance that coca leaves had, and continue to have, in the culture and history of the people of the Andes. Despite gaining notoriety in modern times for being the source material for the highly addictive drug cocaine, coca continues to be a large part of Andean culture today. Unprocessed leaves from the plant can be enjoyed by chewing them or by brewing them into a tea. Locals still use coca today to combat altitude sickness, and to relieve pain and hunger. Some still believe that its leaves can be read to tell the future.

Scientific studies of coca’s medicinal properties have found that its leaves contain a powerful alkaloid that acts as a stimulant. Its effects include raised heart rate, increased energy, and even suppression of hunger and thirst.

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